IN the ultimate David and Goliath-style legal battle, Chris Murphy is the one-man team fighting government lawyers over a stretch of land made famous by poet Seamus Heaney.
The Killough man has been hitting the headlines as the environmentalist who just lost a High Court battle to stop a planned new £160m dual carriageway. Challenging plans to build a section of the A6 Belfast to Derry upgrade close to where migratory birds forage, he claims it will cause irreparable harm to an area worthy of word heritage status.
A judge, however, has rejected claims that the proposals breach a habitats directive on specially protected areas.
Unbowed, the ornithologist is hoping to appeal, and admits the legal fight may go all the way to Europe.
Now retired from the RSPB, Chris is trying to run a business as a wildlife tour guide. But preparing for a judicial review can mean punishing 4.30am starts to his day. And while he is away on business, wife Doris has been the one burning the midnight oil to prepare the court papers.
He’s just been slapped with costs of more than £5,000 for running the first judicial review, and it could be the same again if loses on appeal. So what’s the motivation to devote so much time to a road that’s two hours away from his own home?
“I came over to Northern Ireland 33 years ago from Liverpool and worked as an assistant Regional Director for the RSPB,” said Chris. “Killough was one of the first two sites I worked on for the internationally important Brent Geese.
“Lough Beg [near to the planned road] is a small freshwater lake north of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. Out of sight, out of mind. People do not realise the rarity of it. I surveyed it 30 years ago.”
Lough Beg is recognised as an internationally important wetland habitat for migrating birds by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.
Ornithologist Chris said of the area: “This is one of the best freshwater wetlands in Ireland for 10 species of birds.
“It is a huge undertaking to take a judicial review. But this is in the public interest.”
In impassioned submissions to the court he compared building a road through the site to cutting away at a Rembrandt masterpiece. He acknowledges some may see him simply as an eccentric bird lover, but he is equally incredulous at how Northern Ireland, at times, treats its natural resources.
“It’s something my wife Doris [also an ornithologist], who moved from Munich to Northern Ireland, finds difficult to understand,” he said.
“Please protect your beautiful environment. Northern Ireland is not protected. We notice things that perhaps you don’t notice so much if you’ve been brought up here.
“St Patrick’s grave in Downpatrick for instance. I have brought people to it and they just can’t believe they are standing at the grave of St Patrick. Sometimes people don’t see the value of what is under their noses. Sometimes it take a fresh pair of eyes.”
He is disappointed by a neutral stance on the A6 development by environmental bodies he says should form an opinion one way or another.
“Also, where is the world of poetry? Seamus Heaney would not claim to be an environmentalist but poetry is full of the lapwing and curlew.
“Seamus Heaney also said in his poetry: ‘Even if the last move did not succeed, the inner command says move again’. It is as if he is directing it.”
The A6 route under contention was identified following a public inquiry nearly a decade ago. With commuters regularly facing rush-hour gridlock, the Department for Infrastructure gave the green light to the scheme last year in a bid to significantly improve a major transport corridor.
Counsel for the Department argued that the dual carriageway would have minimal impact on fields where the migratory birds feed.
He also contended that swans foraging on the wetland close to the route are more disturbed by people than roads or cars.
Mrs Justice Keegan found there had been no breach of the habitats directive but did have some words of praise for Chris.
“He conducted his case impeccably, with the assistance of his wife,” she said.
“I know he will be disappointed by this decision, but I commend him for the care and attention he has applied to this case and for raising environmental awareness of this important issue.”
Chris’s court costs are capped due to the Aarhus Convention (which establishes a number of rights that the public has with regard to the environment) and he is grateful that his looming bill of over £5,000 has been deferred as proceedings continue. It is still, he believes, a punitive price to pay.
“This has had an impact on my life,” he said. “Everyone wants to be a wildlife tour guide, I need to get on with that. It is difficult doing this and managing the phone calls. I have to keep my clients happy or they will not employ me again.”
But what sustains him is that he is “100 per cent certain” he has a case.
“The science has to be the best in the world,” said. “They have to be convinced there are no adverse effects.
“The courts in London won’t want to be seen intervening in the decision here. Only Europe will look at it dispassionately.”
Chris’s next battle may be getting there before Brexit. The court has now allowed him until May 9 to submit any Notice of Appeal. His request for an injunction on construction work on the contested section of the upgrade pending appeal has been rejected by the court and he is now putting his request directly to the Department for Infrastructure.
“I am appealing to everyone who cares about inheritance —cultural, ecological, historical or topographical — to find out more about Lough Beg and Heaney Country and give whatever support they can,” Chris added. “This is part of Mid-Ulster, mid-way between Belfast and Derry, is worthy of UNESCO World Heritage status, and every bit as special as the Giant’s Causeway.”